Crain's contributor Robert Loerzel recently interviewed our co-founder Andrew Sacks for a conversation about our project. The full article appeared in the April 9th, 2015 edition of Crain's Chicago Business.
Three students at Chicago's Francis W. Parker High School are training farmers in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador in the craft of beekeeping. The Chicago teens' business, Cotacachi Honey Fund, imports that honey and sells it in gift baskets. The honey is also available at Gepperth's Meat Market, 1964 N. Halsted St.
“We reinvest 100 percent of our profits back into Ecuador to train new farmers,” says Andrew Sacks, who co-founded the company with his friends at school, Sam Smith and Nick Helfand. "Essentially, we're creating a no-risk income supplement for these low-income farmers in Ecuador."
Sacks was born in Ecuador and moved to the U.S. when he was 2. On a visit to Ecuador during the summer after his freshman year of high school, he visited a beekeeping operation. "It was just this unbelievably surreal experience," he recalls. That inspired him to start a business that would do some good for his native country.
The three teens started the venture with money from their parents, which they paid back within a year. They hired a beekeeping expert in Ecuador to oversee operations there, but they visit each summer to help with the honey harvest and train new beekeepers. It costs $3,200 to equip each hive. "We have 80 hives set up in different parts of this mountain range," Sacks says. "We like to set them up close to certain flowers so we can get more of a floral flavor. We also do one in the middle of the forest and we get this organic forest honey."
The bees that produce the honey are Africanized killer bees. "You have to take more precautions," Sacks says. "We're using really, really solid bee suits. They have three layers of mesh and they cover you from head to toe. But it also makes it more exhilarating. These bees are not standing by while you take their honey. . . .We love them. They're resistant to disease. We're not dealing with this colony collapse disorder. They're smaller and they're faster. They're resilient. They're great for what we need them for."
Cotacachi Honey Fund pays the farmers roughly double what the local market in Ecuador can offer for their honey. A new group of farmers is getting a $250,000 grant from the government of Ecuador to set up 500 new hives and begin working with Cotacachi Honey Fund, Sacks says.
And here in Chicago, Sacks and his partners—who are seniors this year at Parker—plan to seek more retail outlets. "The next step is to get this honey organic-certified and fair trade-certified," Sacks says.
Last year, Sacks and Cotacachi Honey Fund won the Chicago educational company ThinkCerca's Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. "His story became a model for other kids," says Eileen Murphy Buckley, CEO of ThinkCerca.